Sixteen Tons, Sixteen Candles
Sixteen Tons, Sixteen Candles
I am the epitome of manhood.
*waiting for snickers to die down*
At least, I will be, for one person, for a little while. For this new little guy coming down the pike, I will be the primary model of what it means to be a man for several years. When my wife and I discovered that our child is a boy, it took some time for us to adjust to that. We'd been hoping for a girl, and I was already casting myself in the role of protector and defender. With a boy, the job changes a little bit for me. I'm still to be a protector and defender, especially in the early years, but I've also got to be a model of male behavior for him to emulate. That means that as he gets older, I do less and less of the protecting and let him do more and more of it, both of himself and of others. My role becomes more vital now, because a boy needs a man to teach him how to be one.
Now, oddly enough, I'm not really daunted by this too much. I've had some time to get used to the idea, and that helps. I think the major reason, though, is that I'm confident enough now to teach my son what I think about masculinity without wringing my hands over my "right" to do so. In other words, I plan to assert without apology that men and women are different and that there are certain traits he should model: strength, toughness, attention to duty, protectiveness, sacrifice, love of justice, faithfulness, perserverance, endurance, and honor (ESPECIALLY honor.)
Do I mean that the above list of virtues apply only to men and not to women? Of course not. It would be beyond absurd to suggest that women are not inclined to be protective and sacrificial, for example; I am certain that my wife would already lay waste to anybody who tries to hurt our little boy, and he's not even born yet. But I will teach him that attention to these virtues is particularly important to men and that our way of embodying these attributes is distinctly different from how women do so.
Now, some of you might think I'm making too big a deal of this. (My wife certainly does; she strongly resists characterizations according to sex.) But I think it's important for a couple of reasons. First, fathers are vital, especially for little boys. Check out the social science in this area: many of the problems (crime, illiteracy, poverty, drug use, etc.) considered endemic to certain populations have as the common factor the lack of a daddy that's married to mommy (rather than the usual suspects of race and class.) When dads aren't there teaching boys to be men, big trouble ensues. (A review of the movie Secondhand Lions is largely about this very thing.)
Second, there are a number of parties in society who are quite hostile to what I just said. Some are people who want to claim that gender roles are purely a imposed cultural construct and that the whole notions of masculine and feminine are outdated concepts. (Personally, I find it somewhat silly to argue with biology, but some persist.) Others acknowledge the inherent differences but attempt to eradicate them by punishing or ridiculing distinctively male behavior. Boys who get in fights on the playground get equal punishments, even if one is a bully and another is protecting a weaker victim. Lesson: fighting is always bad, regardless of the circumstances or principles at stake. (There are many more things to say about that, but I need to finish this.) How many sitcom fathers get portrayed as buffoons or hapless? (More to the point, how many aren't?) When the president moves to defend our country and attack our enemies, he's charged with cries of "cowboy" and "unilaterialist" and "warmonger." Consequently, there are a number of people out there who don't want men to act like men--and, as a result, there are a number of men who don't know what it means to be a man.
I'll wrap this up with this observation relating to my title above. "Sixteen Tons" is a coal-mining song sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford. It is the most unabashedly masculine song I think I've ever heard, both in the lyrics and that deep, resonating voice. Ol' Ernie doesn't have a lot of company out there these days, though, unless it's provided on an individual level. More prevalent are the male models from movies like "Sixteen Candles": the vain, shallow jock, or the desperately insecure nerd, or the wild party animal. It's angst as an operating principle, narcissism as a defining trait, satiating base impulses as an existence model. To borrow a term from C.S. Lewis, there are too many "men without chests" roaming the streets, and not enough with chests on patrol. As for me, I must do my best and do my part for the sake of my son.
So while it feels kind of silly for me to think of myself as the ultimate man, knowing how far short I fall of the models I set for myself, it remains true that I've got that role to play for this little boy. Maybe I'll get it wrong; maybe I'll get it right but he'll screw it up. The important thing is to be there and do it: to do my duty because not to do so would make me less of a man. And if I fumble and fall, what will he do?
(update: there's a bit in the Harris piece I linked yesterday that talked about the power of "shining examples". It strikes me as a good description of what I wanted to be when writing this. I still do.)